Dave Mekelburg
Dave Mekelburg

For University students, the Ann Arbor art scene generally consists of the School of Art and Design and the University’s Museum of Art. This isn’t a bad thing: The Work Gallery on State Street has a fantastic exhibit right now, and UMMA’s Off/Site gallery rarely disappoints.

But our town’s scene, the overall atmosphere, is an academic, spectator one. It’s typically too transient to explore Michigan as a source for the art itself. For that type of cultural output, we look east.

Detroit arts are amid a rejuvenation. The Detroit Institute of Arts is nearing the end of its renovations (Nov. 23, mark your calendar); the steadfast Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit opened its latest, wonderful exhibit, “Words Fail Me” a couple weeks ago; and September witnesses the birth of a new gallery and the continued output of a number of others.

Obviously there’s plenty of art coming out of Detroit, and more recently it relates explicitly to its urban environment. MoCAD’s first exhibit, “Meditations in an Emergency,” housed such innovative works as Jonathan Pylypchuk’s doll-sized slum installation “Press a weight through life and I will watch this crush you.” Sprawling through half a room, its building blocks the city’s detritus and debris, it created a simple allusion to childhood and poverty. Another work used half of an expansive wall. Discarded TV sets facing away from the viewer formed a massive grid, with tissues hanging off each set – the found object of Detroit, in this case a television, is a stand in for the individual.

Assemblage works of art can powerfully connect with Detroit, a city of failed industry and unchecked urban decay. You pick up what you can when you can. Picasso, Cornell and Duchamp introduced the “found object” to modern art in an academic sense, but with Detroit its everyday quality translates into folk art.

It would be too broad to claim that Detroit is best matched with assemblage art. No city is defined by one type of art, however Detroit seems to enjoy a particularly emphasized relationship with the medium. A sculpture carries a certain weight when it consists entirely of debris at the intersection of Woodward Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard/Mack Avenue, a pair of Detroit’s most well-known thoroughfares. Or more obvious still, when the colors of all the observable debris at the same intersection are assembled into a periodic table of elements (“Filter” refers to the color of cigarette butts, “Ronald Red” to the color of McDonald’s products).

Both of these pieces are currently on display in the inaugural exhibition “Intersection” at Work: Detroit, on the corner of Woodward and MLK/Mack. The sister gallery to Ann Arbor’s Work Gallery on State Street, both galleries are run by the School of Art and Design, the latter two years in the making and part of the University’s reaching out to Detroit. Though not all assemblages, the entire exhibit is based on the artists’ interpretations of that specific meeting of asphalt.

“These streets are intersections widely known by contemporary inhabitants,” declares the placard for Ted Ramsey’s “Intersection,” the exhibit’s strongest piece. “The genus loci or sense of place exists because people know these locations and reference them.”

That “sense of place” underlies several of the exhibit’s works. The approximately eight-foot-high tower of shellacked blue jeans dominating the middle of the Work floor space – with randomly assorted words like “I have a dream,” “free” and “we hold these truths” – evokes blue-collar workers and cheap jeans. The words, scattered pieces of history and ideals, economically speak for the city and its endangered aspirations.

The gallery’s opening is another point in the city’s constellated art scene, another avenue for local art to find and build on its identity. Though not the strongest of opening exhibits, it nonetheless fits in well enough with its fellow galleries. Not too far away, the Zeitgeist Gallery and Performance Venue kicked off a new show on the same night. The exhibit “Azutunarasharedo,” its name a combination of various letters from the artists’ names, while not expansive, is home to several notable works. Foremost is Kathleen Rashid’s series of life-sized masks, made of papier-m

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